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Why Do Ethics Classes Fantasize About Murder So Much?
David Swanson   Apr 17, 2016   Let's Try Democracy  

At a post-screening discussion where I questioned the director of Eye in the Sky about the disconnect between his drone-kill movie and reality, he launched into a bunch of thought-experiment stuff of the sort I’ve tried to avoid since finishing my master’s in philosophy. Mostly I’ve avoided hanging out with torture supporters.

If this were a philosophy paper I would now tell you that I am going to show that consequentialism is the most useful ethical framework. Then I would show you that. Then I would tell you I'd just shown you that. And the annoyingness would be only beginning. Luckily, I'm out of school and have told you my central concern in the headline.

Consequentialism, the idea that we should base our actions on the good or bad of the expected consequences, has always been very troubling to philosophy professors, possibly because of some of these reasons:

> It leaves ethics up to humans without any sort of pseudo-divine guidance.

> It means otherwise brilliant people like Immanuel Kant were quite wrong.

> Concluding that consequentialism is the way to go would eliminate the entire academic discipline of debating what is the way to go.

One way to supposedly knock down consequentialism is to propose that if torturing one child could somehow provide pleasure to a million people you would have to do it. But this is simplistic in the extreme. The pain of torture is far greater than the supposed pleasure of watching it. More significantly, this calculation, like all of them, assumes that 2 minutes after the action in question the world will cease to exist. In a world that continues to exist, significant harm can be expected from the act of encouraging a million people to enjoy watching torture -- why in the world would we expect them to stop at one instance of it? And what of the fear that would be instilled in billions of children and their loved ones by a power structure that maintained the right to grab children and torture them? These consequences are, together with the one child's suffering, exactly what make the supposed non-consequentialist object to the horror of the torture, and they are just that: consequences.

A more typical argument against consequentialism is even less persuasive, because it assumes the possession of impossible knowledge, in addition to ignoring medium- and long-term consequences. Such are the ticking time bomb scenario and the trolley problems that obsess legions of academics across and beyond the United States, and which contribute to the acceptance of "collateral damage" by the U.S. military and the people who fund it. Wikipedia notes something critical about the ticking time bomb stories, while dismissing the point as irrelevant:

"As a thought experiment, there is no need that the scenario be plausible; it need only serve to highlight ethical considerations."

Hmm. How about ethically considering the consequences of filling people's minds and television dramas with scenarios that are not plausible? Television crime dramas have been shown to shape people's political views on crime. Shows like "24" pretend that ticking time-bomb scenarios, in which torture will save many lives, are everyday occurrences. In fact, they exist and are only likely to ever exist, in fantasy.

In reality, one never has the knowledge that an individual knows how to stop a bomb, that the bomb will soon go off if not stopped, and that the best way to get the truth out of the individual is torture. Torture usually elicits falsehoods or nothing, and no scenario is more likely to do that than one in which the torture victim need only endure a short amount of time in order to accomplish his or her goal.

In reality, U.S. drone kills do not target people who are about to blow up others in the United States or elsewhere, or people who cannot be arrested, or even for the most part people who have been identified by name. But in movie fantasies and public imagination, that is what is going on. When I objected about this to the director of Eye in the Sky he launched into a number of trolley problems.

Would you pull a switch to send a trolley onto a track to kill one person, to avoid leaving it on a track where it would kill five people? Would you push a fat man onto the track to die, to save five people? Et cetera. In reality you are never going to find yourself in such a situation or its equivalent. How could you know with any certainty what would happen in each case, including that the fat man but not yourself, and not the two of you together, would stop the trolley?

This nonsense seems harmless because we're not considering actually setting up trolley tracks that we tie people to and push people onto. But the moral dilemma of Eye in the Sky is whether to kill people before they can kill more people, even if another and innocent person might be killed as well. The lesson to be drawn is the moral logic of "collateral damage." Here's where that leads: In December 2015, in a CNN presidential debate, one of the moderators asked this: "We're talking about ruthless things tonight. Carpet bombing, toughness, war, and people wonder, could you do that? Could you order airstrikes that would kill innocent children, not scores but hundreds and thousands. Could you wage war as a commander in chief?"

Do you have the manly resolve to enjoy that thrill of power? If you don't, you can always become a professor and experience it vicariously, fantasizing about which groups of people you would kill and save based on your "intuitions" versus your "calculations." I don't think our professors actually want to rush out and kill people or even order others to do so. But many of them want to vote for politicians who do so. Many of them want to pay taxes for it. Many of them want to tell pollsters that they approve of the President running his finger down a list of men, women, and children on Tuesdays and sagely picking which ones to have murdered.

By the circular reasoning of ethicists, the fact that a culture comes to accept "collateral damage" and, for that matter, non-collateral "damage" means that such acceptance is "true" and must be propped up with some sort of argument.

The Pope is right now holding a meeting on the project of rejecting "just war" theory after centuries of its damage. This puts the Catholic church ahead of the philosophy departments in the matter of the basic morality of refraining from mass murder. This atheist applauds the church.

What should ethics students be doing instead of driving imaginary trollies? Long ago, someone (let's pretend it was Jefferson) said, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

David Swanson contributed a chapter to "Why Peace" edited by Marc Guttman, January 2012. He hosts Talk Nation Radio.


It seems to me that non-consequentialist ethics is a very fundamental source of evil (aka bad outcomes). As the author points out, it can be difficult to accept that someone like Kant was quite wrong (despite the fact that his Categorical Imperative is basically a posh way of asking the question, “What if everyone did this?” which, while sometimes helpful, is very obviously flawed as a general guide for one’s behavior. (We don’t want everyone to be a plumber, after all, but it’s good to have one around when you need one.)

At the heart of the article, I guess, is the idea that part of the reason non-consequentialist ethics prevails is that we are asking the wrong questions. Utilitarianism has its flaws and difficulties, but they are good flaws in that they invite good questions, such as, “How can we measure happiness?” or “What might happen if we create a superintelligent AI to maximize overall happiness, and is that likely to be something we actually want?”

That said, answers are also important. So, the next time someone asks me whether I would pull a switch to kill one person or let the trolley kill five persons, I shall answer that it would depend on my state of mind at the time. (Other things being equal, though, I think I should probably pull the switch.)

Well maybe that’s a bit harsh. I think philosophy at its best is an attempt to apply something close to “pure reason” to practical problems, and Kant was right to “critique” it (though arguably Hume and Wittgenstein did better jobs of it). It’s a complement to religion, and while it can reinforce the kind of learned helplessness that David Swanson is (rightly) complaining about, it doesn’t have to.

The problem with religion, IMO, is that people become unhelpfully attached to beliefs. Buddhism is probably the “safest” religion, in that sense, because it put’s so much emphasis on not letting that happen. But it’s also probably not very sustainable, at least for intellectuals, because you eventually become aware of its flaws. Other religions, with more emphasis on faith and less on distance-taking, are more likely to give rise to robust intellectual, religious traditions with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings.

Both are probably necessary, but I would hesitate to regard philosophy as in any way “inferior”, except perhaps in the sense that appeals mainly to the pre-frontal cortex, while religion appeals far more successfully to the rest of us.

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